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What the 1988 Bengals Taught Me About Being Agile

By: Joe Combs

50 yard line on an american football field

The two minute drill has been a staple of football since players were strapping on leather helmets. While it has produced many dramatic finishes to football games over the years, the two minute drill is equally likely to end in disappointment. In the 1980’s the Cincinnati Bengals took this concept and turned it on its head by asking “what if we applied the underlying concepts of the two minute drill to the preceding 58 minutes of the game?” The result was an offensive juggernaut that by 1988 would land them in the Super Bowl. Although I didn’t realize it at the time as I watched the Bengals season unfold week by week, I was learning lessons that would ring as true in my work as an SEI consultant as they do on a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV.

You don’t need to assemble a team of superstars to win

While the Bengals’ numbers were respectable and often near the top in most categories, they weren’t across the board league leaders on the stats page. Instead, they sought out personnel with a proven track record who performed well together. Sure, there are standouts on any team, but what made this team special was that the whole truly was greater than the sum of its parts. Far too often, I see “dream teams” assembled to make a tough delivery deadline or create an exceptionally complex piece of the system. Egos, personal work style differences and communication challenges keep these teams from attaining the level of performance that was sought when the team was created. An agile team of high quality, motivated professionals that meshes well together will outperform the dream team of lone wolves every time.

Situational Awareness is crucial

One of the hallmarks of the no huddle offense was a keen awareness of what was going on in the game. Oftentimes, an opponent would make personnel substitutions for a specific play. If the Bengals saw a favorable matchup in the personnel on the field, they could run a series of predetermined plays to exploit that matchup. Other times, they could simply catch the defense off guard with a quick play before the defense was set or even catch them with too many men on the field. While the latter proved to be controversial, it does show that having a keen awareness of what’s going on and being built for agility allows you to be more competitive and take full advantage of opportunities. What are the prevailing conditions in the market? What features and functionality are lacking in competitor’s products? Can you beat them to market by being agile?

Create a plan but be prepared to adapt

The Bengals would frequently call a series of plays to be run rather than just a single play. There were multiple follow up plays for 2nd down depending on the yardage gained, field position and other factors. Just as these play calling strategies allowed the Bengals to adapt, a refined and well-managed backlog allows the team to adjust as their understanding of the problem evolves. An agile mindset and the continuous feedback of an agile process make it easy to call an audible on your product.

Operate at a sustainable pace

The no huddle offense pioneered by the Bengals isn’t a frenetic drive against the clock. Instead, it is a very intentional approach to the game designed to operate “up tempo” without leaving players too winded to finish the drive. If your team operates with hills and valleys of productivity as you move through phases of the product lifecycle in a waterfall fashion, you aren’t putting forth the best possible result. Agile teams go “up tempo” to elicit timely feedback that enables them to put forward the best product they are capable of without leaving them sucking wind and too exhausted to cross the goal line.

Just as agile methodologies have risen to the forefront in the business community through repeated refinements, the Bengals no huddle offense was the culmination of several years of studying and learning “from the trenches”. By developing a deep understanding of the environment our clients operate in and applying the lessons of the no huddle offense, SEI is helping our business partners take agility to new heights.

Joe Combs


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